Legislative Activity

Higher Education Act Reauthorization

Last Thursday, several Members of Congress joined together in a bipartisan manner to introduce legislation that aims to improve the country’s higher education system by simplifying the financial aid process, improving consumer information, providing financial aid counseling, and creating a more flexible Pell Grant program. The House Education and the Workforce Committee published fact sheets for each of the four bills, described below:

  • The Simplifying the Application for Student Aid Act (H.R. 3177), introduced by Reps. Joe Heck (R-NV), Phil Roe (R-TN), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Mark Pocan (D-WI), would “allow students to use family income data from two years prior to the date of the FAFSA application.” It would also “improve the ability to link between the online FAFSA form and income tax data stored by the Internal Revenue Service to automatically input income data into the FAFSA form, reducing the need to manually input information that often prevents low-income students from applying for aid.”
  •  The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3178), introduced by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Luke Messer (R-IN) and Gregorio Sablan (D-MP), would “create a consumer-tested College Dashboard that would display only key information students need when deciding which school to attend.” Among other statistics, the College Dashboard would include information on the student completion rates, including Pell Grant recipients.
  • The Empowering Students through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 3179), introduced by Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), Rick Allen (R-GA), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), would direct “the secretary of education to maintain and disseminate a consumer-tested, online counseling tool institutions can use to provide annual loan counseling, exit counseling, and annual Pell Grant counseling.”
  • The Flexible Pell Grant for 21st Century Students Act (H.R. 3180), introduced by Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), “would provide students the flexibility to draw Pell Grant funds at an accelerated pace in order to pay for additional courses within an award year.”

The move, at least for now, indicates Committee members will try to work in a bipartisan fashion on HEA reauthorization, or at least look for common ground in select areas.

Student Data Privacy Legislation

Last week, House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Chairman Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Ranking Member Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced the Student Privacy Protection Act (H.R. 3157) to update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA) also signed on as original co-sponsors of the legislation. According to the Committee, the bill would do the following:

  • Update the definition of an education record to ensure student information connected to classroom technology is protected.
  • Prohibit schools or independent entities, such as technology companies, from using a student’s education record to market products or services to that student.
  • Reaffirm a parent’s right to access their child’s education record and opt out of sharing their student’s directory information such as name, address, and date of birth.
  • Strengthen security requirements for storing and gaining access to student education records.
  • Provide parents with greater transparency about what student information schools determine can be used, collected, and shared for educational purposes.
  • Reinforce privacy protections by providing schools better guidance, support, and oversight.
  • Ensure compliance with the law and communication between parents and school leaders by requiring schools to designate a privacy official to oversee the use of student information.

Although the Committee had originally planned to mark up the legislation this week, it appears that they have now decided to postpone the mark-up until after the August recess. This bill is one of many student data privacy bills that have been introduced in the 114th Congress and likely has the best chance of seeing movement this year given that it was authored by the staff on the Committee with jurisdiction over the bill and is bipartisan in nature. It is unclear at this time whether there is an appetite within the rest of the House and in the Senate to complete work on a FERPA update this Congress.

This Week’s Hearings:

  • Wednesday, July 29: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing  titled “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Combating Campus Sexual Assault.”

Executive Branch Activity

Department of Education Seeks Feedback on Recognizing Innovative Programs

In a blog post published on July 17, Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell announced the Department is seeking feedback over the next weeks and months to expand its understanding of how to assess the quality of non-traditional higher education programs. These innovative programs help to create a more accessible and cost-effective system of higher education, according to the Department. However, the quality of these programs varies and the Department says it lacks the tools to distinguish between the high-quality and poor-quality programs—from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) and online skills courses to boot-camps and competency-based degrees. Additionally, the Department stated that current regulation prevents the certification of these high-quality programs to receive federal financial aid because the programs are not “institutions.”

The Department now seeks to develop “a new set of quality assurance questions” for innovative higher education programs, with a focus on “outputs and evidence.” In framing the discussion, it has identified three general categories for feedback: providers’ claims about student learning, effectiveness of student assessments, and student outcomes. The Department invites stakeholders to send their thoughts, questions, and ideas for engagement on these quality assurance questions to collegefeedback@ed.gov.